January 1, 2011

I Choose to Begin

At the Window. Autumn. by Leonid Pasternak

I love all beginnings, despite their anxiousness and their uncertainty, which belong to every commencement. If I have earned a pleasure or a reward, or if I wish that something had not happened; if I doubt the worth of an experience and remain in my past--then I choose to begin at this very second.
     Begin what? I begin. I have already thus begun a thousand lives.

Early Journals


  1. the perfect entry for the beginning.

  2. One of the difficulties I have in revising my work, Ruth and Lorenzo, is that like Rilke, I too love beginnings.

    Beginnings are like new born babies or even sooner, the first flush of pregnancy. We love them because they carry all that hope and fear interminlged.

    Thank you both for a wonderful beginning to another brave new year, this time a little less alone, as we can share it with Rilke.

  3. I am like this too, loving beginnings, and I am not so good at finishing things. I find that I like the design of a quilt, for instance. That first square contains all the pleasure of combining colors and patterns. But then to complete the quilt is to enter the mundane. In fact in some way I think I fear the mundane and boring more than the challenge of stepping into new territory.

  4. I look forward to following your new blog throughout the year, Ruth and Lorenzo. Reading Rilke daily will reap such rewards. I'm beginning - right now.

  5. We take steps forward together, Robert.

  6. Happy new year everyone. Nice to see this gathering of beginners to start off this year with Rilke. I have a question for Elisabeth: when you say your love of beginnings generates difficulties for you in revising your work, what type of difficulties do you mean? Is it that you prefer not to revise your work, or that you revise too much and too long, trying, perhaps, to capture what seemed in the offing when you began the piece. I am curious, because I am more prone to the latter and tend to think that what I write is never finished, never ready. The result is I begin many more pieces than I finish.

    Ami Mattison, at poetryNprogress (http://poetrynprogress.com/page/2/) had an interesting take on this last November in her discussion of "the myth of the never-ending edit", in which she concludes that, by definition, "our writings are always already good enough". I recommend the piece.

  7. A fine beginning with a fine future. I look forward to this journey together. Thanks so much, Ruth and Lorenzo, for making this possible. A great way to launch the new year!

  8. I know I will enjoy this. You've opened the new year with a "just right" quote. Thank you!

  9. I enter this learning with 'beginner's mind' and welcome the opportunity to grow. thanks to Maureen who led me here, I look forward to following and participating in what's to come!

    I too love beginnings -- this beginning has great promise.

  10. How great! I have this book and welcome this shared journey. Thanks.

  11. Perfect. I have added this blog to my Google Reader feed with great joy. Thanks!

  12. I have already left my comment with Lorenzo.

    I would love to understand what it is about Rilke which, even in translation, which can, at times, be a little clumsy and uneven, particularly where the originals are written as rhyming poems, that touches so many poetry lovers and even those who normally read little poetry.

    Perhaps this new blog will help me to understand.

  13. I always wondered why I was so good at beginnings, and so bad at finishing. It does become mundane, most times.

    Congratulations on the new venture! I look forward to seeing what the year holds for us.

  14. Thanks, Maureen, for the tweet that has already led some readers this way.

    Friko, you have certainly touched on an issue that tends to obsess me: the difficulty of translating poetry. It strikes me as absolutely impossible, yet, at the same time, an absolute necessity. Robert Frost once quipped that poetry is what gets lost in the translation and I think he was pretty much on the mark. All the same, how impoverished we would be if we only knew poems written in languages we understand and never in translation.

    I find it very vexing to see Spanish poems that I love and identify with in their English translations, bereft of practically all of their musicality, leaving me to ask: What is left? My initial reaction, with poems by Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Neruda, and many others, is to think that it can be done better and go ahead and try to translate/adapt them myself. And then I collide with the brute fact of how difficult or even impossible that is, and almost invariably, come up with an even more dissatisfying translation.

    Yet we read and are moved by poetry in translation every day. What does get across? A bit of a mystery. Your question as to what people who read Rilke in translation take away from his poems, shorn of their rhymes, sounds and music, echoes similar questions I have often asked myself.

    I remember when I came to live in Spain over 25 years ago that I was touched, delighted and yet puzzled to see how strongly some of my new Spanish friends were moved by Billie Holiday's singing even though they understood none of the lyrics. How was this possible, I wondered, given that one of the best parts of her singing is how she played and teased with the lyrics, often completely subverting them. Listening to the desperation in her voice as she sings the saccharine lyrics of You're My Thrill would jolt me into the realization that she was probably singing to a heroin habit, not to a lover. The impact of this subversion was immense and, I assumed, lost on people who did not understand the lyrics. But something would get across nonetheless, and something very deep. How? I do not know if you are familiar with her version of Strange Fruit, with its scathingly powerful description of a lynched body swinging in the summer breeze. I am willing to bet that it deeply moves any attent listener, regardless of whether they understand what she is singing about. How??

    In song, of course, the musicality gets across unchanged, and it is the lyrical content that goes missing in the translation; just the opposite of what happens with poetry, where the verse's musical is the first victim of what Italians call the traduttore traditore, "translator traitor" (please bear in my that I make my living as a translator).

    Any way, I look forward to your observations on Rilke and input and reflections on the translations

  15. What a beautifully warm welcome from old friends and new! I am beginning to think that this is not really the year of the rabbit; it is really the year of Rilke. He seems to be the mystery we are looking for. I want to welcome all of you and let you know my glee at the onset of this space with Lorenzo, and in turn with all of you.

    After reading through the comments, and Friko's questions and Lorenzo's response, I echo the same. I felt the question about Rumi when I heard that he was the best selling poet in the U.S. ten years ago. What is happening? Clearly there is an awakening to things of the spirit, and I believe this is why Rilke is seemingly everywhere these days.

    Regarding the question about translation, my German friend Inge has wondered if perhaps the best translator is one who is a native speaker of the first language (of the original poem), and one who has a firm grasp of the second language, to see it from the inside out?

    There is a very interesting article about the process of translating Rilke here. C. John Holcombe presents the various problems various translators face (and he shares 14 different translations of one stanza of Rilke's poem Herbsttag), including the problems with the words themselves (which word is best suited to the original, even if there is no exact equivalent?), diction, rhyme, maintaining or changing word order, and looking at the context of the poet's previous work. To appreciate what Lorenzo has faced translating poems from Spanish to English, this article is worth reading. I'm thinking of linking it on the sidebar.

    Somehow, in the various translations of Rilke's prose, poems and letters, his ideas, thoughts, and way of seeing get across. Maybe it's an example of the sum being more than the parts.

    I hope we can keep exploring the issue of translation as we move forward, along with the other topics that arise. I would covet Friko's insights into the original German (and Inge's) along the way. As a light speaker of Turkish, I know that much can be expressed in that language that I can't say precisely in English. I have no doubt that I am missing a great deal by not reading Rilke's original and understanding German. All I can say is that to write like this and withstand the shifts that must take place from one language to another, to touch so many, there has to be some universal music inside it, as Lorenzo illustrated so very well.

  16. Ruth, please do link the article on the side bar. I am interested in what your friend Inge says that “perhaps the best translator is one who is a native speaker of the first language (of the original poem), and one who has a firm grasp of the second language, to see it from the inside out”. The truth is I probably disagree. The main reason is that it is possible for non-native speakers of a language to gain near or even fully native command of their second language in terms of understanding. I see this in my personal experience with Spanish, as well as with the many translators I have known. In terms of comprehension, my Spanish is on a par with native Spaniards with similar educational backgrounds and reading habits.

    This is not true, however, for learning to write ‘like a native’ in a second language, which is almost impossible (although there are stellar examples, like Polish-born Joseph Conrad who did not learn English until he was over ¡20!). And the key point is that translating literature and especially poetry has much to do with writing. To translate a great poet, one must be a very good and, if possible, a great poet. Even in the cut-and-dry legal and financial texts that I translate, I have never professionally translated even a single word into Spanish. And all the translators I work with, and there have been scores, translate into their native language only. And for literary prose and verse, this can only be more true. The most difficult thing to being a good translator is to be a good writer, and, with very, very few exceptions, people can only aspire to be good writers in their 'native pen'.

  17. Lorenzo, thank you for this articulation, which convinces me at this moment. When I sent the article to Inge, and she responded as I mentioned here, she also said "We need to talk about this . . . " with that joyful prospect of a long conversation between friends. While Inge is profoundly wonderful in English, her second tongue, I must agree with you, after reading this last from you, that it has to be "the other way 'round" in translation, and I will copy and paste your comment in an email to her (I don't think you'll mind) in prep for my face-to-face conversation with her Tuesday . . .

    I'll let you know the outcome of our discussion, which will no doubt be a translation or paraphrase of hours of talk . . . :)

  18. Beginning a day late here. Good morning all!

  19. What a sweet beginning this is - Rilke's words so true. My heart is joyous at this great gift of Rilke I can attune to each day. what a wonderful service this is Ruth. Blessings....

  20. Beautiful beginning to 2011. I'm savoring each post.

  21. Ruth, Lorenzo.

    I do believe now , that I am ready to begin here. Thank you . Truly.
    I am going to set aside time come alive here. I am.

  22. It is three years later now, May 2014, and 4 am. I'm in tears reading this, overcome by the quality of the comments and the thread of the dialogue.
    After spending seven weeks translating the sonnets to Orpheus, getting myself tied in knots, and feeling desperately alone in this, I can't believe my luck having found you all. I shall pretend that I haven't missed the boat, and follow on reading this blog, as if time stood still.
    Like Lorenzo, I have been amazed at the impact Rilke has on particularly American readers. I started translating his sonnets purely as a puzzle, an exercise in constructing poetry along the lines of somebody else's mind, but have been drawn into really reading him for himself.
    Thank you so very much for leaving this blog live, allowing me to read my way through it from the beginning.


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!